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More than roses

Flowers are nice, but it’s emotional presence that makes couples’ hearts grow fonder

By Karen Stiller

One Valentine’s Day, I really messed up. We had just moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto, and I forgot about the special day. I called the florist and ordered a single rosebud to be sent to the huge downtown church my husband had just joined as a minister, along with a card that said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Honey!” Later that night, the janitor found the little bud dwarfed by huge bouquets at the front of the church — beside a coffin.

My wee little love offering, really a peace offering, had been misdirected to a funeral. We laughed about it, but I was reminded that Brent has feelings, too. And if there is one way to improve your marriage — before hiring a cleaning lady, before just the two of you check out that new Thai restaurant, before sending the kids off to boarding school — it is to focus on the feelings.

Stay connected

Dr. Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist, director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and internationally known as the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples. “Part of making your marriage better is for you to really understand what love is about. It is about a really safe emotional connection,” Johnson explains. “The most important thing you can do for your partner is to be emotionally present, not to give advice, and to understand that everybody gets disconnected.” The secret of happy couples, says Johnson, “is that they recognize they are disconnected, they pay attention and find ways to connect again. It can be as simple as walking back into a room after a fight.”

What reinforces the ability to connect is a concept that Johnson calls “effective dependency.” Contrary to popular thinking, it is good, healthy and human to allow yourself to be
emotionally dependent on your partner. “Healthy dependence is when you can accept your own attachment needs and fears,” says Johnson. Clearly communicate them to your partner, and allow him or her to do the same for you. Think of a child who is hurt and turns to a parent and says, “I’m scared, please hold me now.” That is about as clear as you can get, says Johnson, and it is what we need to practise in our marriages. “Risking and reaching are part of loving, and you have to be able to do it,” explains Johnson.

Learn to share

Murray and Elaine Wilson of Grand Bend, Ont., have been married for 42 years and are members of West Hill United in Scarborough. Through their involvement with United in Marriage, a United Church-run marriage enrichment program, they have learned to do exactly what Johnson is talking about. “Life-giving communication comes when we realize the emotions we are experiencing and then let our partners know what they are,” says Elaine. Murray acknowledges that sharing one’s truest, deepest feelings and needs requires vulnerability and trust, something that couples may have to spend time building and nourishing. The Wilsons use letter writing as one tool that allows them to open up and share their feelings. “Write a love letter. Tell your partner why you are glad to be in each other’s lives,” says Elaine. “Or write about something that has happened that week. Find a question that will help bring out your feelings in the letter.” Remember, feelings are not wrong. They just are. Building a strong marriage means accepting what your partner is feeling and not judging, correcting or attempting to change it with logic, instruction or even fixing it with a rosebud — even though roses are nice.

Examine your patterns

“You create the relationship every moment,” says Johnson. “We have all this rubbish about soulmates out there. There are no soulmates and no perfect lovers. Get down and make the perfect love together. This is not magic.” Johnson uses the term “demon dialogues” in her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love to describe dead-end patterns of communication that happen over and over again in our marriages — most often when we don’t feel we can connect safely with our partners. Identifying them is an important first step to healing them. Think about some of your worst fights.

They probably repeat themselves every now and then. Is the issue really the issue? Are you actually fighting about the empty Slushie cups in the minivan, or is something else going on? Johnson encourages couples to dive deeper into the ocean of emotion that is running beneath their dialogues. “The bottom line is you have to be able to deal with the emotions to get out of these patterns. You can give people 42 communication skills, but if you’re not going to help them deal with the emotion — which is essentially panic at separation — you’re going to get stuck.” Getting unstuck takes work, commitment and a mutual decision to make your marriage a priority, perhaps the priority of your life.

Make your marriage number one

Take some time to honestly examine where your relationship stands in your list of life priorities. Actually writing your priorities down on paper might help. The wrestling match of the heart usually comes when you’re talking about children. But “most times,” reminds Murray Wilson, “what ends up as good for the parents is good for the children.” Parents who practise loving each other deeply, richly and honestly — and first, before all others — are ultimately providing a more secure home for their children. “There is a sense that if both parents are working, that you don’t want to hire a sitter and go away from the kids,” says Elaine Wilson. But couples need to “have fun together.

Even if it’s going for a walk in the park.” Make date nights as immovable and as difficult to cancel as a work meeting with your boss would be. Take turns coming up with the activity and surprise your spouse, even if it’s just a trip to the local pub for a cold beer and a warm talk. Consider a trip away together alone.

Recently, my husband and I divided our three children among friends and spent a few days in Halifax, where our relationship was born. It did us — and our kids — a world of good. And think hard and honestly about your individual activities — whether it’s a preoccupation with Facebook, endless evenings snipping and scrapbooking, or too many separate friendships — and ask yourself if they give, or take away, from your primary relationship with your spouse. Things that help you blossom as an individual can be wonderful, essential and life-giving, but if they are causing you to grow away from your spouse or lead a separate life, take a moment to reconsider them together.

Get off the moving sidewalk

It is so easy to glide and coast in marriage. It is easy, especially years in, to grow lazy in our devotion, to drop our guards and believe, wrongly, that our marriage is unshakable. But the rewards are beautiful for wrenching our relationship out of the place where we have left it and working diligently to create and protect what Sue Johnson calls “a loving safe-haven relationship.” She says, “We are not designed for emotional isolation. Our brains are not wired for it.” Our marriages are not made for it either. And it is worth all the rosebuds in the world to figure it out together. 

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